Saturday, February 07, 2009

Dept. of No Surprise: SSPX Thumbs Nose at Pope

As readers may imagine, the Germans are pretty huffy about this whole Society of St. Pius X thing.  Germans are sensitive about Holocaust denial and other signs of creeping neo-Fascism.  

In the spirit of that huffiness, Der Spiegel has a new piece on the flap, including some quotes from "Bishop" Williamson's lawyer, a man who is working overtime these days.  The writer professes to be shocked -- shocked, I tell you -- that in the midst of all its newfound notoriety, the SSPX isn't even making a pretense of "tempering its tone."  Consider, for example, one Fr. Franz Schmidberger, who 

... went on German radio on Thursday to censure German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her critical comments about the pope's handling of the scandal and about the need to clearly condemn Holocaust denial. "She doesn't understand, after all, she's not Catholic," he said. Then he turned his attention to the Prophet Muhammad. He had "sexual contact with an eight or nine year old girl," Schmidberger said according to a statement released in advance of the interview's broadcast. "In today's terminology, we would certainly call that child molestation...."

Oh, yeah. These guys want to play ball. Not. 

For our money, however, the most significant development is this one:

Still, as much as SSPX members like Schmidberger talk about submitting to papal authority, it has become clear just how little they do so. On Thursday, this disobedience once again became clear. {Another German paper] reported that Bernhard Fellay, the Swiss bishop who is also the superior general of the Society of Saint Pius X, inducted so-called "minor orders" -- as the lower ranks of Catholic clergy are called -- last Sunday.

For those who don't quite get it, here's the lowdown. Medieval Christianity distinguished between church offices which did not require perpetual celibacy -- the "minor orders" of porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte -- and those which did, such as subdeacon, deacon, and priest. The idea was that the minor offices were preparation for the major ones, sort of like baseball.  

Trent regularized it all somewhat, which was Trent's job.  Vatican II changed the game completely, by essentially suppressing the positions -- although as we understand it, they still exist within the Extraordinary Form (that is, the Tridentine Rite Latin Mass), and are therefore perpetuated by "indult societies," among whom the EF has long been permitted as, well, the ordinary form.  (If the SSPX has a future in communion with Rome, it would be as one of these indult societies).

Got that?  Here's the real point:  induction of people into these minor orders is a bishop's job.  With special permission, an abbot or other leader can do it, but the "ordinary minister" is a bishop.  And although Fellay is a "bishop" -- valid if not licit, remember -- he and the others remain under suspension, meaning that they are prohibited from exercising their ministry as priests and bishops.

In other words, he's acting like a bishop, even though the Pope told him not to.  And he's doing during an especially difficult public phase of his Society's ongoing search for reconciliation with Rome.  He might just as well hold a press conference and declare himself the anti-pope, because that is how much respect he has shown for the Chair of Peter.

So what's really going on here?  It's becoming clearer.  The SSPX doesn't really want reunion with Rome, except on its own improbable terms, which include the retroactive amendment of the Vatican II documents.  Instead, the Society is playing a public-relations game, building its brand among the lunatic fringe.   Its strategy is almost certainly to keep up the shenanigans until the pope -- this one or the next -- loses patience, and smacks the Society down permanently.  At which point, if all goes well, the SSPX will achieve its true goal, a position of leadership in the crazy-house of traditionalist, and non-Roman, Catholicism.

In this cynical maneuvering, the SSPX has found a surprising foil.  Pope Benedict is a man of unquestioned intellectual brilliance, who was long famed and feared as his predecessor's theological enforcer.  But, like so many priests and so many academics, this academic priest is turning out to be hopelessly naive about the ways of the world.  

His Regensburg lecture remains the locus classicus.  The world took it as a wilful slap in the face of Islam, but in context it has always seemed to us more like the usual work of a gifted college professor, stringing together surprising ideas and obscure references to challenge the preconceptions of his classroom audience -- sophisticated and comparatively liberal Western Europeans.  It was as though he had forgotten that the whole world now pays attention.

His handling of the SSPX looks like more of the same.  We do not doubt his genuine pastoral concern for the souls of these men (whose souls, we note in passing, are evidently at incalculable risk).  We suspect that he may also be measuring his own papacy against the dominating figure of JPII, and long to either complete the great man's work or even exceed it, by bringing the Lefebvrists back into the fold.  But, at least absent some pretty stern words in the near future, his eagerness for results seems to be getting the better of his good sense.

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